Diem’s Final Failure — Prelude To America’s War In Vietnam, by Philip E. Catton

(University Press of Kansas, 2003; 298 pgs., $34.95 — ISBN 0700612203).

This book is not about combat nor American military action. It is about how we became involved Viet-Nam and how the relationship between the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies developed. It is probably the definitive book on the reign of Ngo Dinh Diem, the first president of South Viet-Nam. It describes Diem’s background, character and personality and explains why not only Diem, himself, but also the vast cultural differences between the Americans and the Vietnamese made for an extremely difficult relationship.

It also has current value as the United States searches for leaders we can work with in parts of the world that are as new to intense American involvement as Viet-Nam was in the 1950s and ’60s. A better understanding of what we did wrong in Viet-Nam may help us to avoid repeating those same mistakes in selecting foreign leaders we can work with and through.

Catton’s many examples show how out of touch the Ngo family was with the majority of the Vietnamese people. Diem was an arrogant, opinionated bachelor, a Catholic in a nation that was 93% Buddhist. One of his brothers was a Catholic bishop and Catton describes “the sectarian character of the Diem regime.” Another brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, served as “Political Counselor” and enforcer. Catton describes him as the regime’s “Rastputin.” Nhu’s wife was probably the worst female government spokesman since Marie Antoinette. Madame Nhu referred to the suicides of burning bonzes as “barbecues.” Among the Americans she was widely known as “The Dragon Lady.”

Catton apparently speaks and reads Vietnamese, which undoubtedly provides advantages in research and opens doors for him that are not available to most American authors of books about Viet-Nam. Even though the English language literature on Viet-Nam is vast, some of the information he provides from the many referenced books and articles in Vietnamese may well be published here for the first time
The author expanded what was originally a graduate student paper about the Strategic Hamlet program in 1961-1963 into a doctoral dissertation that was more focused on Diem, his government and their developing relationship with the Americans. With that background, we should expect excellent documentation; indeed 203 pages of text are backed up by 59 pages of notes.

However, it is still possible for a nitpicker to find a few gaps. For example, his bibliography includes the U.S. Army’s Military History Institute but not its Center of Military History. “The Michigan State University Viet-Nam Advisory Group” is mentioned three times but we are not told what it was. My local guide in Plieku in 1999 spoke excellent English because he had spent a year at Michigan State University. (The downside was that it earned him a year in jail after the communist takeover.) What was the Michigan connection? Faced with being dumped by his American allies “Diem won a dramatic reprieve with a military victory over the Binh Xuyen (a Mafia-type crime organization) at the end of April 1955.” How could he win “a military victory” over a bunch of civilian gangsters?

Diem continually carped and complained about the type and amount of U.S. aid but resisted doing the things the Americans wanted in return. In “Stilwell and the American Experience in China,” Barbara Tuchman relates Stilwell’s complaints about our government’s failure to demand a quid pro quo from our Chinese allies in return for the aid we provided them. We had the same problem in Viet-Nam. I read “Stilwell…” in the spring of 1972 during my second tour as an advisor to a Vietnamese Army unit in the field. Our failure to demand, and the Vietnamese’s failure to provide a quid pro quo was still a problem nine years after Philip Catton described this exchange between Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and Diem in 1963:

“‘Isn’t there some one thing you may think of that is within your capabilities to do and that would favorably impress U.S. opinion?’ Lodge asked finally. Diem gave the ambassador ‘a blank look and changed the subject.’”